Teamsters foaming over ejection at Yuengling

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At a glance

THE DISPUTE: The Teamsters say the owner of D.G. Yuengling & Son threatened to close the brewery unless workers decertified the union. Yuengling says its employees got rid of the union on their own.
THE RULING: The National Labor Relations Board sided with the brewery, saying it found no evidence that Dick Yuengling Jr. pressured employees to leave the Teamsters.
THE BOYCOTT: The Teamsters, backed by the Philadelphia council of the AFL-CIO, wants members to boycott Yuengling products. But so far, the boycott appears to have fallen flat.

   

POTTSVILLE, Pa. -- Dick Yuengling Jr., fifth-generation owner of the brewery that bears his name, called his employees together a few weeks before their labor contract was set to expire to talk about the future of the business.

"Read between the lines," he told them at one point, according to government documents on the management-union feud that followed.

Depending upon whom you ask, Mr. Yuengling's speech was either a pep talk to urge employees to work harder or an ultimatum to dump the Teamsters union, which is what they did.

The union has been trying to strike back, urging a boycott of the 178-year-old brewery's product. The company says the effort has fallen flat -- with "absolutely zero feedback" from the marketplace, according to Chief Operating Officer David Casinelli.

Now, the Teamsters say they are going to try to get state lawmakers to intervene in what they say has been an unfair fight.

However faintly, the spat echoes the epic labor battles that took place in this hardscrabble region 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia more than a century ago, when coal miners in Yuengling's hometown unionized and went on strike, demanding better pay and working conditions.

Union leaders say Dick Yuengling told the workers that he would sell the business or shut it down unless they shed their decades-long affiliation with the Teamsters. How else to explain the sudden decision to decertify, they say.

The brewery says employees started a decertification drive on their own with no encouragement or interference from the owner.

"The company simply honored the employees' wishes," Mr. Casinelli said.

And the National Labor Relations Board sided with the company. It could find no evidence that management pressured employees to leave Philadelphia-based Local 830 of the Teamsters.

No surprise there, the Teamsters said. Employees were too scared of losing their $20-an-hour jobs to come forward to testify about what was said at the meeting, union leaders said.

"Pottsville's a very small town, and the Yuengling brewery's the only game in town. So there was great pressure from the people of Pottsville to not say anything," said Daniel Grace, head of Local 830.

Yuengling, founded in 1829 by Dick Yuengling Jr.'s great-great-grandfather, was a small regional brewery for most of its history. But it grew explosively in the 1990s -- driven by the popularity of a lager it introduced in 1987 -- and now distributes in 10 states.

With production of 1.58 million barrels in 2006, Yuengling ranks as the nation's top regional brewer, according to Eric Shepard at Beer Marketer's Insights. Order a lager in the mid-Atlantic region, and chances are the bartender will serve Yuengling.

Mr. Grace said the union had a good relationship with Yuengling until a few years ago, when the labor board awarded back pay to several employees he said were laid off out of seniority. That, he said, prompted Mr. Yuengling to convene his workers in early 2006 and give them an ultimatum to get rid of the union.

The union represented nearly 80 employees in the brew house, the bottling shop and the warehouse.

Mr. Grace's account is supported by two people who said they were at the meeting and who spoke with The Associated Press at the request of the union.

They said that Dick Yuengling Jr. blasted the "guys from Philadelphia" -- the Teamsters. They said he also told employees they should "read between the lines" and threatened to close the brewery. The two said they did not want to be identified because they feared retribution.

"If he doesn't want union people, then I would say union people shouldn't drink his beer," said Patrick Eiding, president of the 150,000-member Philadelphia council of the AFL-CIO.

When the union took its allegations to the Philadelphia office of the NLRB, Mr. Grace said no one would testify against Yuengling.

Instead, workers told labor board investigators that Mr. Yuengling had given them a "pep talk" about the company's future "and the need for employees to work harder," according to Dorothy Moore-Duncan, an NLRB regional director.

Little appears to have changed at Yuengling since the union got the boot.

The brewery continues to pay 100 percent of the cost of workers' health insurance, said Mr. Casinelli, the Yuengling executive. It also boosted wages by 3 percent last year.

The Teamsters "are hurting their own membership with this nonsense," he said. "Our brands are a significant source of income for wholesalers all over the state, many of whom are union houses, and I've not had one house throw our brand out."

Nor has there been much reaction in Pottsville. Yuengling has long helped anchor this gritty town, offering relatively high-paying jobs in an area where such jobs are scarce. Yuengling employs almost 200, most of them at the Pottsville brewery and at a second facility nearby.

At the Brass Tap Tavern a few blocks from the brewery, patrons had mixed feelings about the union's boycott call.

Don Long, 31, a municipal worker who plans to join a union next month, said he sympathized with Yuengling's workers, many of whom he knows.

Yuengling's owner "doesn't care for his workers -- he just cares about how much money he can make," said Mr. Long, who said he would observe the boycott.

But Barry Sponsler, 49, a software developer, said he would continue to drink Yuengling.

"This is a pretty tough part of Pennsylvania. There's not a lot of jobs around here, and they provide a lot of employment," he said. "If the union gets decertified, it's because they're not adding value."



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